Monday, November 16, 2015

Volume 3 - Chapter 3 - Darwin

My wife and I got a new computer (We've been saving for what feels like a year), and that project has eaten up my weekend's free time. But, that's not why you guys are reading is it?

Also, have a great week people!


    “Minx, Mclean, will you two stop eating our new minions!” Daniels fussed for the fifth time during the walk home as the two continued to lick the yellow snow cones to death. Before they had left the indoor ski resort of a dungeon, the whole group had made a point of farming dozens of the yellow snow cones to bring back as protection bots for the demon army stationed at Lawlheima. The yellow shields would hopefully have the ability to almost eliminate any casualties that future conflicts might bring, and, given Tiqpa, there was a good chance one or two players might stumble across Lawlheima in the future thinking it was an ordinary dungeon, which would be justifiable since it originally was.
    “I don’t know . . . We can always go get more, right?” Darwin shrugged. He didn’t see how one or two would make a difference. After all, generally players only travelled in groups of five to ten people at most. Any more and the item splitting would leave too many people unhappy or simply unequipped for dungeons their level. That’s why most game designers didn’t even think of adding raid-sized dungeons until the cap level was reached for players since they’d have to run it multiple times to satisfy the gear demands of each player.
    “You know, this game is missing its true potential,” Mclean said, taking another bite of her helpless victim’s sugary corpse.
    “How so?”
    “Think about it: all you can eat of the most delicious sugary treats in the world, but no weight gain. Feeling hungry because of your diet? Hop on, spend hours eating the most delicious edible delectables imaginable and then log off in time for bed. Sure you’ll still go to bed hungry, but at least when you crave cherry-glazed chocolate cheesecake, you can eat it without any health repercussions.” Mclean took another bite. By now, her lips were covered in the yellow snowy stuff.
    “That’s not a bad selling point. I bet that would pull in more gullible house-husbands and housewives than organic stickers on bananas,” Kitchens added.
    “You shouldn’t get organic bananas?” Minx looked surprised. “But mom used to always get them and you never said a thing?”
    “Well, that’s because the couch really isn’t comfortable Minx,” Kitchens patted her on the head.
    While the others were laughing, Darwin frowned as he remembered how the topic of Minx’s mom had impacted Kitchens before. Even though Kitchens was still smiling, he figured it would be best to get the conversation moving again quickly and away from that topic before it dug into the man further. “Well, maybe the game is missing its point, but, to be honest, some of the tavern food can be worse than a cheap diner that ran out of butter. It’s not surprising that no one in the advertising department thought about it.”
    “I certainly never did before now. This is really the first time for me to try food for the sake of taste since I got here. I mean, I had some of the meat at the party after the big fight, but it was more to join in the celebration with the NPCs than it was to actually try out the delicacies,” Mclean had an odd almost contemplative look on her face that Darwin couldn’t recognize.
    “Yeah, eating delicious stuff in the game is good and all, but I still don’t understand why you didn’t just take some of the red and blue ones to eat on the way home? Why are you eating the ones we need?” Daniel’s complaining picked right back up where it left off.
    “Oh, I have plenty of the red and blue ones. Those just taste better,” Mclean beamed happily in a way that made Darwin think Minx was rubbing off on her.
    Is the silly Minx personality contagious to the point that even the gruff, ‘kill first ask questions later’ Mclean could be infected? “So you are saving the best for last?” he asked, remembering the reasoning he had used as a kid when picking out the order of awful stuff at a school cafeteria to eat. After all, no one wanted those gross, pickle-infested hamburgers to be the only taste in your mouth for four hours until you got home to a toothbrush.
    “Nah, I’m saving them for Alex and the group. We should have just enough for everyone to get one.” Mclean showed a surprising amount of generosity that made everyone’s mouth hang a little open from shock. Even Daniel, who had been complaining about her eating the yellow ones earlier, had no complaints to make after that reason came to light.
    “I bet they’ll love it!” Minx blurted out. “And Alex the ninja general will probably steal and eat his before anyone even sees him!” She loved the idea, and, given that she was already eating a yellow one too, and not a red or blue one, it was clear she had been in on the plan from the start.
Darwin had to admit he was impressed. He had been second guessing what his teammates had thought of NPCs for a while, but here they had gone and done this thoughtful act of kindness without anyone noticing. It was kind of touching.
“And I’ll bet we’ll get tons of EXP for it if we turn them in directly to Alex!” Mclean’s face lit up even more than Minx’s. “We’ll be a higher level than the old farts!”
    Darwin found himself just shaking his head. For a moment, I let myself believe there were no ulterior motives. He sighed. It didn’t matter though. The net result was the same: the NPCs would get to eat a bunch of delicious treats instead of having to stick to a strictly meat diet. I can probably even get them to set up a farm in that other dungeon and we could sell some of the excess snowballs to the town for gold, he pondered, realizing that this might really be a good money-making scheme.
    “Hey, do you hear that?” Kitchens stopped, extending his arm and stopping Minx too. “Up ahead should be Lawlheima, right?”
    “Yeah, it should be. What do you hear?” Darwin asked, more confused than anything. Kitchens wasn’t the type to make a big deal of small things, and Minx and Kitchen were both Felines, and, as a result, they probably had a lot better hearing than Darwin, Daniel and Mclean would.
    “I don’t know. It sounds like . . . It sounds like fighting!” He pulled out his sword and began to charge towards the cave in his usual tank top samurai fashion, leaning forward with his arms held motionless and ready for action with one hand on his sword hilt and the other on the scabbard.
    “I hope we make it in time,” Darwin panicked, dashing with Kitchens and the rest of the group towards Lawlheima as soon as Kitchens had finished speaking, and he realized what was probably going on. It’s a raid! A group has come to do the dungeon, and they’re probably going to think the StormGuard Alliance members are just regular dungeon mobs to be farmed!
    Mclean dropped her sugary treat and took to the skies with Daniel, flying ahead of the group much faster than Darwin, Kitchens, Minx and Fuzzy Wuzzy could keep up with. “It’s not looking good! There are almost thirty players up ahead!” Daniel shouted back to them, his voice trailing off as the distance between them grew greater.
    Crap, crap, crap, Darwin’s panic started to freeze up his ability to think, but he still struggled to come up with an idea. What do I do? What do I do? He was failing to grab the reins of his runaway thoughts as his feet propelled him towards Lawlheima with every ounce of speed his legs could muster. I won’t let them die again, he told himself as he burst out of the woods to finally see the fight up ahead.
    Daniel’s counting had been off. There weren’t just thirty players. There were closer to fifty in view as he charged towards the fight. The soldiers, being lead by Alex, were mimicking the same formation and tactics, but on a much smaller scale, that they had used when they battled the Panda King. The problem with that was the attacking players weren’t all physical damage dealers. If everyone had just been standard physical weapon users, the Demons strategy would have worked just as well--if not better since the enemy numbers were drastically fewer--as it had against the Panda King Robin’s troops. But, as if right on time to confirm Darwin’s fears, a giant fireball erupted on three of the front shields, burning the middle victim alive and knocking the entire formation out of order, rendering it inept.
    The second that happened, Darwin was about to really freak out since, with even a single member of the shield wall missing, the whole thing would be useless, but then a group of Blue-Drakes circled around and blasted the ground between the shield wall and the enemies, buying precious time for Darwin. Two fire mages in the attacking band whom Darwin hadn’t noticed shot additional waves of fire at the passing fliers, but the scorching blasts just helplessly broke and fizzled out against the fireproof scales of the Blue-Drakes. At the same time as they revealed themselves, the two mages were then picked off by Daniel and Mclean, who took advantage of the fact everyone was facing the cave entrance or the sky above it to sneak an attack into the enemy’s rear flank before darting off again to the skies so that their victims’ allies couldn’t take vengeance.
    “Get back in formation!” Alex yelled loud enough for even Darwin, still a good thirty second run from the fight, to hear as the shield wall tightened back up. “Archers! I need a unit of you to shoot square 382 before he gets a second chance! The rest of you spread fire, give us a spread four squares deep!” Within a moment, dozens of arrows flew out from behind the wall and covered the first fire mage’s corpse, turning him into what looked like a human porcupine. The warriors in the front, which the arrows also bombarded, remained almost unharmed as their shields absorbed most of the damage with barely a few arrows getting through and wounding some of the charging enemies.
    “What the hell is this? The loot has to be crazy in there!” one of the attackers, a man with craggy, rock-covered skin shouted. “Come on guys! You gonna let a bunch of filthy, low-level mobs stop us from taking our cash?” he cried, rallying the melee attackers, which amounted to well over half their numbers, forward as their charge finally slammed into the shield wall, bouncing off but still knocking it back half a foot. “Kill them all!” he shouted again, punching the ground and causing a spike of earth to shoot up from the ground and knock the soldier in front of him back.
    What in the heck did he just do? Darwin wondered for a moment, but then shook his head free of distracting thoughts as he finally managed to close in on the archers, his sword cutting through one of them before they even had a chance to turn around. Kitchens, only a bit slower than him, managed to chop the one on his right in half before even enough time had passed to take a breath, but the archer screamed as the top half of his torso separated from the bottom and slid off to the ground, leaving the player only a moment of life before the game system notified him of his death.
    As soon as Kitchens’ kill screamed, the twelve remaining range fighters turned around to see what had happened. They knew already that they had to watch out for Daniel and Mclean, but, given that the two were directly over them, they had been looking up as they tried to dodge their winged assailants--both Daniel and Mclean as well as the Blue-Drakes--but had failed to notice much of anything at ground level. “Crap!” another craggy skinned fighter in the pack yelled as he turned around to watch Kitchens split one more of his friends in half. “Kevin! We got PKs eating us up back here! These jerks are trying to steal our quest!”
The melee fighter who had been shouting earlier turned and looked. Then, after saying something to the others that Darwin couldn't make out, he and three other rocky-skinned melee fighters slammed their hands into the ground as their allies backed away from the phalanx, and a giant earthen wall shot up between them and the NPCs guarding the dungeon. “Alright men! About face, we have some dirty, loot-thieving PKs to handle!” he shouted, this time loud enough to reach Darwin’s ears, and then they all turned around and charged towards Darwin’s team.
That is absolutely wicked, Darwin actually paused right in the middle of stabbing someone to watch the earth shoot upwards and create a barrier between the two groups.
As Darwin, not wanting to waste time, went to strike another one of the range attackers, he was this time repelled by a-now-all-too-familiar yellow shield, except this one wasn’t as strong as the ones he had dealt with back in the winter-themed dungeon. Crack. you flimsy thing, he thought as his sword crashed down on the barrier two more times. The axe-throwing trollish creature whom he was attacking threw his projectiles, which somehow appeared back in his hands after each throw, at Darwin too. However, Darwin’s shield blocked them perfectly.
“Darwin, I can’t find the shielders or healers or whatever they are that are stopping us now!” Daniel shouted from the air. “We need to find the shielder before the melee fighters get back here and put us in a bind!”
“These thieves! They want to kill us? We’ve already killed seven of the guards for this dungeon. The loot is ours!” the leader shouted again, picking up a clump of dirt as he ran and throwing it at Darwin. Mid-flight it transformed into a giant spike and shattered against Darwin’s yellow shield.
    Darwin stopped swinging his sword altogether. The words the boss said spun around in his head a hundred times in that short moment. ‘We’ve already killed seven’ just kept playing on repeat. They’ve . . . Seven are . . . Seven are dead? Seven are dead, and they are bragging about it? his breathing started to shorten.
    “Did you stun him?” the axe thrower asked the guy next to him. “What’s going on with this one?”
    “He just knows what’s best! Look! Give us your gold and leave, and we’ll overlook this insolence you filthy PK!” the leader shouted at Darwin, but Darwin only half heard it. The words being shouted around him didn’t really reach him. It was as if they were merely far away echoes bouncing back and forth in the back of his head.
    “Darwin! Snap out of it!” Kitchens said from Darwin’s side, finally having broken through his victim’s shield and diced him him up like vegetables on a cutting board. “We need to come up with a game plan quick, or we’re going to be outnumbered, and back up won't show until Alex get’s that wall down.”
    Seven people . . . and they think I’m the PK? Darwin’s head throbbed, and the grip on his sword tightened. They killed my people, and they accuse me of being nothing but a low-life, PK thief? Darwin’s vision flashed the same red that they often burned with when Hunger kicked up, but it didn’t make sense. He had the maximum 70 possible souls allowed. After that, much like it had been the first time Hunger had taken over during a fight, he found himself watching the ensuing carnage. He saw his sword strike the yellow shield in front of him over and over again with as much strength and ferocity as he could summon until the shield cracked and shattered beneath his blows. When the little weapon chucker inside tried one more time in a futile attempt to hit him with his magical reappearing axe, Darwin reached out and somehow grabbed it before the barrier could block it and then stabbed it into the man’s chest. The man screamed for a moment, but the noise must have irritated the new pilot of Darwin’s body because as soon as the cry rang out, Darwin plunged his sword into the man’s stomach, grabbed him by his hair, yanked his head back and then ripped his throat out with his teeth before pulling out his blade and letting the soon-to-be corpse fall to the ground.
    “Not cool! What the heck kind of move did that guy just use to kill Erwin?” an ugly ogrish creature of a man that stood two feet taller than any normal guy shouted. He was, for all intents and purposes, rather fiendish looking with overly-hairy, dirt-covered skin, an abdomen three times longer than it should have been. His elongated torso was resting on proportionally small legs with arms even longer than the abdomen. His hands were bigger than most people’s feet.
    “Darwin?” Kitchens’ concern was written all over his face as he continued to hack at his own prey’s shield, clearly still trying to beat the counter and kill one more before the reinforcements arrived.
    Darwin then, to everyone’s surprise--including his own since it all happened for him as if he were in the passenger seat of a car driving with auto pilot--took his giant sword and stabbed himself right through his own heart. As the critical hit on his heart rendered him dead almost instantly, he didn’t have much time to protest against his suicide before the lights went out and he slumped over on top of his zweihander, the fall pushing the blade further into his chest.
    “Did . . . Did he just . . .” the enemies around him started to speak, but Darwin’s hearing faded with his sight.

Soul Devourer has been activated and consumed your 70 soul charges. You have been restored to full life and will have a +50% increase on all stat values for 350 seconds after the resurrection process is complete.  

Due to having no soul charges remaining, you will awaken with Hunger active.

This effect may not occur more than once an hour.

    The familiar blood-hued flash overtook his vision again as it beckoned forth a wave of pain to fill his body. Then, his knees, which touched the ground as he lay propped up only by the crossguard and hilt of the zweihander spitted through his body, bent, and he started to stand even while the wound in his chest where the fiery blade impaled him throbbed and ached as if he were being run through by a hundred soldering irons, then healed up fully, then run through again over and over and over every single second.
    Standing, he reached up to his chest and slowly, awkwardly pulled out the unwieldily sword, his wounds healing after each new injury the process created along the way until the sword was fully out and the only thing to show that he had ever been harmed was a hand-sized tear in the back and front of his bathrobe where he had been shish kabobed. Then, the pain kicked up again. His shoulders, his knees, his legs--every muscle twisted and turned under the agony as his skeleton felt like it was being ripped to pieces. He wanted to scream, but the torment had pressed in on his lungs and left every muscle below his neck tightening and untightening in involuntary discomfort.
    Then it stopped. The burning faded even though his chest still felt like it was fifty degrees too hot and his eyes, still seeing the world with a red tint, cleared up enough to make out what was around him. Everything seemed smaller. Everyone seemed weaker, more pathetic, like ants to be crushed, and, most importantly, he now understood why he had killed himself. He needed to activate this skill. Hunger wasn’t just the name of a curse that ravaged his health and forced him to act, it was psychological too. He had tasted this power twice, and now he had cause to taste it a third time, and he wasn’t about to be denied his rampage.
    They killed seven of mine? Then I will kill seven times that number of them! he thought. He hungered and he embraced it, gripping his sword that felt like a feather now and slamming it into one of the long-armed troll players, cracking his yellow shield in two swings and dismembering his right bow-holding arm with a third. He could feel the need, a thirst for carnage, only grow as his hand punched into the troll’s open screaming mouth and then proceeded to rip out its tongue.
    Before the others could react, before people could come to their senses--as they had all paused to watch his Lazarus-like rebirth and the subsequent brutal destruction of one of their players--his blade had already pierced through another player, one without a shield. So he’s one of the healers, he thought as he decapitated him with his sword. How many more are left? He grinned, the pull of his want and need driving him towards yet another lamb for the slaughter.
    “Wha . . . What the hell? These guys are cheating!” the Ogre from before complained again.
    “He’s not cheating. He’s just a higher level. This dungeon is flagged as Level 45. He might already be 50!” the obvious leader said. He was a few dozen feet away from Darwin and closing in quick. “I mean, remember how difficult that scout group we encountered on the way here was? If it weren’t for our healers, we wouldn’t have been able to kill them so quickly.”
“Yeah, and if the shields are failing, it’s your fault! Why can’t you just put up good shields like you did against those red-eyed pipsqueaks earlier.” They were already shifting blame, making excuses as their arrows, axes, spikes and the occasional ball of fire bounced off Darwin’s shield bots’ defense.
They’re low level . . . They’re only Level 40 to 45? Darwin processed the information. And and that’s the healer!
“Hey! Are you guys checking this out? He’s got a bathrobe on too . . . and his eyes are red! He’s the boss of the dungeon we’ve been sent to kill!” one of the Ogres he passed shouted to the others as Darwin closed in. “We don’t even have to worry about that plan we had to burn the phalanx alive, we can just kill him here!”
Plan . . . to burn the phalanx alive? Darwin had managed to impale the healer who had been stupid enough to let his identity be known to an enemy, when the leader finally caught up with him, slamming him in the side with all his strength. The shield didn’t stop the momentum as well as it should have, and it even knocked Darwin back a few inches.
“Crap, he’s got both our healers. Let’s get him before the other groups show up!” the leader shouted, “Everyone focus on him! We can bring down his barrier. He’s not a PK player! He’s a boss!”
    “Darwin!” Kitchens moved through another foe like bread quickly slicing through butter. It was just as he had done in the arena countless times before, walking forward and the enemy falling apart, but this time Darwin could see everything, and this time it was the last thing he saw as the red in his eyes grew stronger and stronger.
He hadn’t noticed until it was too late, but, each time he killed someone, the red tint grew just a little bit more and his vision grew a little bit less. He had thought he was behaving of his own free will after the resurrection, but as he tried to speak out and answer Kitchens, it became painfully obvious he was still on auto pilot, and now the red had grown to the point where it completely obscured his vision and he couldn’t even watch.
Darwin had no idea when he lost himself to the blood rage, but he slowly could feel himself returning, still in the middle of a fight. Dodge, he screamed at his body as a sword slashed down at him and a quick sidestep barely saved his skin. He realized he then had slightly more control as he grabbed his blade and used it to parry the attacking longsword, which had gone from its downward position into another sideways slash at him. Then, when the parried blade returned once more for another downward swipe he didn’t just sidestep, he caught the blade with his crossguard and threw it to the side. While the attacker tried to control the momentum of his deflected blade, he rushed, shoulder first and caught whoever it was right in the center of his chest, knocking him back three paces.
However, there wasn’t even a moment’s pause in the fight because as soon as the foe had been knocked back, he was already pressing Darwin with another three consecutive slashes, two side slashes and one coming down at his head, that Darwin had to back up while parrying to avoid being hit. I’m not going to be pushed back this easily, Darwin dug his foot in the ground, summoning all the power he could muster and arching his sword in an upwards 45 degree angle to make it nearly unavoidable for the opponent.
It worked, for the most part, knocking the opponent back again as the man lifted his legs while parrying to minimize the impact by letting it carry him . When the enemy landed, Darwin tried the same thing again, repeating the heavy swing right at his opponent from the opposite direction but, the enemy caught the blade with his own, using its downward momentum to drive it into the ground as his own katana danced up Darwin’s zweihander and plunged into his arm. The pain almost made Darwin drop the blade, but he gritted his teeth and pulled the blade directly up instead. As his adversary quickly moved out of the way, the zweihander didn’t even nick him as Darwin had hoped, but it still put Darwin’s weapon in front of him once more so he could parry incoming blows.
Watch the center of their body. It lies the least. Darwin started to remember what Alex had taught him and began to focus less on the katana that was now striking at him and more on the opponent’s center. Parry. Good. I can do this. He fought through the distraction of his injury. But, just as Darwin was about to celebrate an evening of the field, two feet planted into his back so hard he fell forward with enough force for the horns on his head to dig a hole in the ground. At first he struggled, almost throwing off whoever had kicked him in the back entirely until a new weight, which felt like it must have been heavier than a truck, pressed him further into the earth. What the hell? This is how I die? he grumbled into the dirt as he finally gave up struggling to free himself and proceeded to wait for his inevitable death, one that wouldn’t be undone by resurrection. Wait, has it been an hour since the fight started?
Then, unexpectedly, the dirt around his face started to shift, and little by little unclamped until he had plenty of breathing room, and bright sunlight once more assailed his face. He grumbled, spit the dirt that had made it into his mouth out into the opening, and looked up from where he was being held down.
“You about cool yet big guy?” he heard someone say.
“Huh?” Darwin tried to turn his head to see who was talking, not entirely sure what was going on.
“Well, he’s speaking again,” the voice said, clearly not to him. Then, whatever was sitting on top of him roared, and started moving, but the voice stopped it, “Hold on Fuzzball. We don’t know if he’s back to earth again. Stay there for a moment.”
Fuzzball? Fuz . . . “Fuzzy Wuzzy?” Darwin said, then started to recognize the voice, “Daniel?”
“There we go! He’s back. The boss is back,” he said to whoever else was watching. “Alright, Fuzzy get off Darwin. We don’t want him to get angry again,” Daniel laughed. “You really gave us a scare there, boss.”
“Yeah, what happened there? You kind of . . .” Mclean asked, trailing off. “Got more handsome.”
Huh? I got more . . . Wait . . . What the heck? Darwin finally pushed himself off the ground as Fuzzy Wuzzy got up and let him stand again. “Huh? What are you talking about?”
“I was going to say you kind of went crazy back there. Don’t know what Mclean is talking about.” Daniel responded. “We were lucky Kitchens was able to hold you off until we could get you pinned there.”
The opponent, the Katana--so it was Kitchens. Darwin put the pieces together. The entire fight he had been so obsessed with worrying about the enemy, watching his arms, his legs, his blades, his style and making sure that he could defeat and kill him that he never once looked at the face or thought about whom he was fighting. He had just known there was a fight, and he wanted desperately to win it and kill the other person. If they were saying anything to him, he either didn’t hear it or it just didn’t register. So this is the true face of the madness my bloodline is cursed with. Darwin frowned, realizing that although this particular moment had passed,
“Think nothing of it.” Kitchens sheathed his sword. “It was good to fight a worthy opponent for once.”
“Were you going easy on him?” Minx asked her dad with wide, expectant eyes. “You never take that long to kill someone. You’re a superman!”
“That’s a rude question to ask Minx. Do not belittle the skills of the man we follow.” Kitchens turned and started heading towards the entrance behind the now-mostly-crumbled and destroyed wall of earth.
Minx tilted her head as if she didn’t agree with him and then shrugged and followed after her father. “How come you don’t get taller?” she asked her dad as they walked towards the entrance.
“I’m taller?” Darwin looked at his body. It didn’t feel or look any different. It wasn’t like the time he had resurrected to feel horns.
“Yeah, man, you are at least three inches taller than you were.
“And beefier. Mmm. I know a few guys that would die to learn that magic trick,” Mclean giggled and then nudged Daniel.
“Hey! I’m happy with my height!” Daniel tried to defend himself, but Mclean and Fuzzy Wuzzy both just chuckled at him.
While they continued to tease Daniel, Darwin couldn’t help but look around. He had remembered around fifty or so players when he first came to the fight, but there were well over a hundred bodies from what seemed like a dozen different races. They were scattered apart, cauterized, cleaved and destroyed in some ways that just didn’t make sense. Darwin couldn’t imagine how or why someone would have everything from their jaw to their collar bone missing. “What . . . what happened here?” Darwin tried desperately to scavenge his memories for even the slightest clue to what had just transpired. “What did we do? What did I do?”
Kitchens, who had been walking with Minx back towards the phalanx was at the entrance of Mt. Lawlheima, stopped for a moment and turned around. “Darwin!” he called out to him, “Come here. I think we need to talk. Minx, you go play with Fuzzy Wuzzy.”
Darwin didn’t exactly run, but he didn’t walk either as he darted to meet up with Kitchens, who had changed direction and started heading towards Darwin’s left, away from the entrance but not towards the sea of corpses.
“So what’s up?” Darwin asked when they were out of earshot of anyone else.
“Hmm, Darwin, you knew this issue would come up?” Kitchens looked at him with a type of square, flat face that made him feel like he was staring at an angry Easter Island statue.
“Yeah,” he nodded, “Like I said earlier, it’s caused by a class skill.”
“I believe you said that when this skill comes up, everything goes red and you find it difficult to control what you’re doing?” Kitchens had a rather serious look on his face, one that reminded Darwin of a patient expecting to receive bad news from a doctor, yet his tone lined up more with the doctor giving the bad news.
“Yeah, but it’s kind of difficult to describe though. This time was worse than the others. Usually I’m like a passenger, watching the turns a bus makes through a window from a seat near the front, but this time it felt like I was losing consciousness.” Darwin wasn’t exactly sure of how to spell it out other than it sometimes felt like he was being possessed, like he had control of himself, but then he didn’t, and he could watch, but then he couldn’t. The spotty mastery of his own faculties wasn’t even the worst part of it. The worst part was knowing that Hunger didn’t trigger it, and that it wasn’t triggered by dying either.
“When you killed yourself, were you the one driving?” Kitchens still hadn’t blinked. It was weird that Darwin noticed this, especially since it was a game, but it was somewhat offsetting when someone was staring right at you with such an intense look. It’s not like most games had blinking and now he was beginning to wonder if Tiqpa even had the feature.
Blinking, huh. Darwin’s lips fell halfway into a frown. I really wish he would just blink and make this feel less awkward. “It, whatever it is, was driving. Not me,” he answered honestly, starting to feel uncomfortable about the conversation. Why does this bother me so much? Why is talking about it making me feel so uneasy.
“Hmm, I see. And when it’s in control, do you want the driver, for lack of a better word, to ever stop what it’s doing? Do you ever tell it to behave itself and not kill?”
“So you didn’t tell it not to attack me? Not to try to kill me when we fought?” Kitchens’ words stabbed through him.
No, No. “No it wasn’t like that, I--” he started, trying to explain to his actions so he wouldn’t lose a friend, one of the few people he actually felt comfortable using the word ‘friend’ to describe, but Kitchens cut him off.
“You just didn’t see my face, didn’t know it was me you were fighting? Did you?” Kitchens explained it for Darwin, much to Darwin’s relief.
“No. No, I didn’t. All I saw was the sword, the arms, when and where the attacks were coming at. I lost consciousness somewhere in the fight, and by the time I regained it, all I knew was that a sword was coming at me, and I didn’t want to die. I just saw that I was being attacked, and didn’t want to lose,” Darwin sighed.
“Was it fun?” With just three words it felt like Kitchens pressed the topic back into the realm of accusation.
“Uhh . . .” Darwin tried to recall. He had been so focused on the actions he had been making that something like ‘fun’ never came up. He hadn’t been sad, happy, bored or entertained. He just had just been. Almost like a machine that was utterly dedicated to a single task. “No,” he finally spoke. Certain that it was the truth.
“Lighten up Darwin. You look too tense. Be like water,” Kitchens clasped Darwin on the shoulder knocking a sigh of relief out of him. “I only have one more question: What were you thinking about before it started? Did anything of note happen first?”
“I remember.” Darwin didn’t have to think about it for more than a second before he recalled the trigger. “I was thinking about how they had killed seven of our guildmates already, and they were acting like it was their right to do it. They were talking as if, since they had come first, they should get to kill our guildmates before anyone else, and . . . because they came here first, I wasn’t able to stop them before people died.”
“So anger set it off,” Kitchens nodded as if he already anticipated this answer. “Darwin, what you’re experiencing, I know a bit about it.”
    “You do?” Darwin wasn’t sure how anyone else had his unique inherited curse. Maybe there was a berserker class that had a similar attribute, but Kitchens hadn’t even started selecting abilities yet from the sound of their earlier conversation.
    “There are some things, small details about a man’s first time in a live combat zone, that you just can’t help but notice a lot of war stories have in common. Most of them start when the fan gets assaulted by fertilizer, and they are generally all told by a hero. If you were telling the story, for instance, about your first time in combat, you’d be the hero, and the story might start off rather simple. You might be just walking through a town on a day so hot that five topless supermodels on a beach couldn’t compare to it when all of the sudden a bang happens. Two bangs, three bangs, and either you or your buddy next to you, especially if you’re both green horns, will piss himself. You’ll duck and run for cover. And I don’t mean the general cover where you sleep under the truck so a loose shot in the night doesn’t pick you off, I mean the type of cover where you need something solid to hold you up because your legs start shaking and your breath goes ragged,” Kitchens started his story, and while Darwin wasn’t sure if he was talking about his own experiences or just stories he had heard, he couldn’t stop listening to every detail. Kitchens normally had a laid back personality, but as he spoke now, his hands came alive a bit, his voice seemed to move up and down like it was trying to sweeten the story with a rhythm that wasn’t suited for any song.
    “It gets worse as time goes by too. If you watch the movies, especially war movies, it makes the fights seem like they last forever. Who knows? Maybe they did at one point, but from the stories I heard, the tellers were thankful they usually lasted about ten to fifteen minutes, rarely up to thirty, because each second that clicks on by your first time, you feel big. Huge, but not in a good way. Not in a macho, masculine way--well, some people do since some people are born out of steel--but for the people I knew, their first time, they felt big in the sort of way where you were aware of every square inch of their body that was exposed. Every single possible piece of flesh that could be hit by enemy gunfire added to the panic, and you wished you would shrink up and you pray to be small for the first time in your life. Then, as if it’s just the way of the world, things escalate because your NCO, your squadmate, that driver you split a cigarette with when you couldn’t find a shop nearby, whoever it is next to you won’t take cowardice on the field. They won’t have anything against you for it, but they just don’t want to die. A trenchmate who won’t carry his weight is a surefire way to end up in a bed of posies to them, so they kick and push you to go out and do something.
“That’s when you grab your 240 bravo, man up and start shooting the first thing you see that looks like a threat, like a window with flash that might have been a gunshot and a man who looks like he’s holding a gun, not that you can be sure from the distance he’s at. Not that you can see anything but movement to begin with. You unload and keep unloading, one shot after another until your NCO knocks you to stop because your barrel has melted and he doesn’t want the bullets to turn the end of your weapon into a small shrapnel bomb.” Then Kitchens said nothing. He just looked at Darwin for a good long minute. Darwin wasn’t sure what to say after a story like that, but just as he was about to open his mouth and break the silence, Kitchens started again.
“Darwin, life isn’t much different than this video game. You didn’t go into some berserk rage that you couldn’t control. You just snapped under the pressure. You weren’t on autopilot; you were just acting so fast your brain couldn’t keep up. It’s not like you’re slow or stupid or can’t think faster than your hands can move. It’s just that you and your brain both know that when the time comes, if you spend even a second trying to figure out if that guy in the window is a friend or a foe, armed or unarmed, if it actually is an enemy, then it’s a one that just shot you. My guess is, you’ll never be able to get rid of that tunnel vision in some fights. It’s just not possible . . . but you can solve the lack of control. That is something you can fix.”
“How?” Darwin asked, though he was already starting to draw a conclusion as to what the answer would be. Kitchens had practically spelled it out. The problem exists because I’m emotionally weak.
“Well, for starters, it never flares up in dungeons does it? We’ve leveled together for a while, no problems. But, when you are fighting people with lives on the line, it pops up instantly? I’m guessing this isn’t the first time you’ve been worried about something or someone dying while fighting and gone into that autopilot state, is it?” Kitchens asked.
“No, it isn’t,” Darwin remembered that the first time he had ever experienced it was when he was in the tournament and found it was a fight to the death, thinking that, if he failed, he’d end up as a corpse permanently.
“This world is so realistic that no human could tell the difference, and NPCs don’t come back. I understand that, but other people aren’t having this issue because they aren’t failing to separate the game world from reality. Sometimes when your emotions turn on, you need to learn to shut them down, bottle them up and pack them away for when you can process them with a cool head. If you can learn that patience, learn to focus on the objective without fretting over the consequences if you fail or the things going on around you, I think you won’t have that problem again.”
Darwin wasn’t used to Kitchens talking straight. He had half expected even that speech to come as ‘Fire should be . . .’ and ‘You need to be more like water when . . .’ or something, but, for what Darwin guessed was a very personal reason, this wasn’t the type of subject the man minced words with or took a chance that the other party wouldn’t get it. “I understand,” Darwin said, nodding.
“Good. Now you need to do your best to not let it happen again. Minx, Mclean and Daniel may be joking around about the topic, but that’s only because they don’t know what else to say or do. You were pretty ghastly in that fight, you even shoved one person’s body part into another person’s mouth to kill him.”
“Right . . . so to ease the tension, I probably should . . .” Darwin wondered what sagely solution could possibly make people less nervous around him.
“Ease the tension? Just let that happen naturally. I’m going to tell you an important lesson you learn as a man. Sometimes you should just run away. In fact, you should handle this subject just like I handle the topic of sex with Minx: never bring it up, and hope the other party forgets all about it.” Kitchens nodded, happy with his advice.
“Kitchens, thank you.” Darwin figured there were a lot of eloquent things he could say, but the man had opened up about what felt like a rather dark real-life story to give him advice about his problems and make it relatable, so he didn’t want to botch it with a bad joke.
“No problem kid,” Kitchens said and turned to head back to the rest of the party.
Kid? I’m like thirty years old! How old are you again that you think I’m a kid? he wanted to ask, but he figured there wouldn’t be a point.
    As they walked back to the the group, Minx riding on Fuzzy Wuzzy’s shoulders as the bear did circles around Daniel and Mclean, who were busy talking and laughing about something.
    “So what’s the gameplan? Go find another dungeon and kill some more people or wait around and see if yet another group shows up?” Mclean asked.
    “Wait, where’s Alex?” Darwin asked, avoiding the obvious ‘how many groups actually showed up’ question that he really wanted to ask.
    “He took the wounded inside and went to reorganize the troops. Said he’d be back out if the scouts gave word again.”
    “Well, we might as well wait for Kass or Valerie anyways,” Darwin said and shrugged. “Do most guilds have this problem?”
    “It depends. If they based their entire guild in a mountain they might.” Mclean shrugged too, tossing one of her knives up in the air and catching it.
    “Or, if they have a secret quest set by a mysterious NPC to kill their guild leader and break the portal to hell, that might also explain the attack,” Daniel said, moving his finger around in that weird and awkward way people used to back when people thought hand motion technology was the way of the future.
    “Wait, what?” even Fuzzy Wuzzy seemed to say with the others as they all stopped what they were doing and looked at Daniel.
    “Yeah, there is a huge reward on your head, Darwin. You’re marked as the boss of this dungeon, and it’s said that you’re protecting an evil portal to hell that will unleash a flood of demons. Since the beta stage is ending, and the game is making its official release soon, players are speculating that this is going to be the huge loot giveaway quest, and they are starting to migrate from all over to participate even though half the forum is complaining that there wouldn’t be just ‘one’ quest on ‘one’ side of the map since it’d be too unfair to the other regions.” Daniel’s shocked expression looked as if he had seen a ghost. “It even has your race listed, Darwin. It says you’re the mighty King of the Demons. I mean, I don’t know if StormGuard Alliance is a monarchy, but you guys are Demons right?”
    “Well, this really does complicate things, doesn’t it?” Darwin looked back at Lawlheima. “Anyone have any suggestions on how to handle this?”

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